The Highland Park School District near Detroit, Michigan, is undergoing major reform this year as emergency manager Joyce Parker turns the district’s schools over to a private charter company.

Highland Park is currently in the lowest 10 percent of Michigan school districts, with Highland Park Community High School ranking in the lowest 1 percent. Several grade levels in the district schools are scoring 0 percent proficiency in math, science, or social studies, and the proficiency levels in reading are so low that the American Civil Liberties Union sued the district and the state last month for violating the students’ “right to read.”

Academic collapse isn’t the only problem in Highland Park. The district had a deficit over $11 million as of June 2011, a figure that has more than doubled since June 2010. The district would have to cut expenses by almost 70 percent next year just to prevent that number from increasing. According to Governor Rick Snyder’s (R) office:

Even with one of the highest foundation allowances in the state (one of the ways [Michigan] schools receive funding), [the Highland Park district] can’t afford to pay its loans or its creditors, let alone open the doors to its schools and pay for teachers and books. In fact, the legislature had to appropriate additional funds to make sure Highland Park students could get through the recent school year.

In order to balance the budget and improve educational outcomes, Parker has recognized that a major reform must take place.

After rejecting several options for dealing with the schools—including merging with another district or even declaring bankruptcy—Parker is turning management of the schools over to an outside charter company.

Making use of a charter operator is in accordance with state law and will help address the district’s financial crisis. After the schools are converted to charters, the district will again become eligible for state funding, which otherwise would have been unavailable to the district in the 2012-2013 school year.

The new charter schools’ most important task will be to change the academic culture within Highland Park schools so that students will receive a high-quality education. The first step in that change is to ensure that dedicated teachers are leading each classroom.

As allowed by state emergency law, the district’s entire professional staff was laid off and now has the option of reapplying to teach within the district. The reapplication process gives the new school administrators an opportunity to reanalyze the teaching staff and have more control over personnel decisions.

Highland Park’s schools have reached a point of failure that can no longer be ignored. The move to charter the schools will be a fresh start for the district, providing a much-needed opportunity to balance the books and improve academics for the students.

Teresa Shumay is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit